Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The corporate bailout

The Senate economic rescue package contains $500 billion for bailouts of large corporations.  Much commentary has focused on the lack of accountability, but the bigger issue is simply the massive waste of taxpayer dollars.  From the WAPO:

In a Tuesday interview on Fox, Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun said he would not be willing to give the government an equity stake in the company in exchange for a bailout, implying the company would only accept assistance on its own terms. President Trump has said he would support the idea, suggested by his economic adviser, of taking an equity stake in companies that receive assistance in the package.

“If they force it, we just look at all the other options, and we’ve got plenty of them,” Calhoun said.

Why are we giving them money?

It’s not clear how the bailout provisions will work, at least to me.  There will be loans and perhaps some equity investments.  But Delta stock is up 50% over two days; Boeing is as well.  Between the two of them this represents roughly $35 billion in market capitalization, a gift to their shareholders.  Maybe some of this is based on optimism about the general economic benefit of the stimulus, but the $35 billion number may also be an understatement of the true give-away, because part of the Senate bailout package was priced in more than two days ago, and some of it may not be fully priced in yet.  Much will depend on the terms and conditions attached to loans and investments; it is not clear to me that the law will require the government to drive a hard bargain or even has enforceable provisions regarding disclosure.

And let’s be clear that there are no benefits at all for taxpayers from these bailouts.  We have a well-functioning bankruptcy system in this country that would prevent a failure of either company from harming the broader economy.  If we don’t trust the bankruptcy system, or want to protect unionized workers, we could allow existing shareholders to keep a small fraction of the value of the companies and let the government own the rest, in exchange for an equity investment in these companies.  These bailouts represent a giveaway to powerful constituents, pure and simple.

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Insider trading by members of Congress

The recent insider trading by members of Congress (notably but not exclusively by Senator Burr) is appalling.  One policy response – advocated for by Elizabeth Warren – would prohibit MOCs from investing in the stock of individual companies, requiring them instead to invest in mutual funds.  This would prevent the type of corruption evident in the Chris Collins case.  However, under this proposal MOCs could still have cashed out of stock funds and moved into bond funds based on their advance knowledge of the coming epidemic.

An alternative or complementary approach would be to require MOCs to place their buy and sell orders in advance – say, 6 or 12 months in advance.  This would prevent them from trading on private information, such as classified briefings about the likely economic impact of the covid-19 epidemic.  A similar rule could also be imposed on corporate insiders to (largely) eliminate insider trading and perhaps reduce incentives to manipulate financial statements.  (Executives would still have an incentive to pump up the stock price prior to an announced sale date and to lower it prior to an announced purchase, but at least other investors would be aware of their incentive to do so.)

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AFL-CIO has a Plan

AFL-CIO has a Plan

From the AFL-CIO website:

PRIORITIES OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT TO ADDRESS THE CORONAVIRUS:

PROTECT FRONT-LINE WORKERS
  • Streamline approaches for allocating and distributing personal protective equipment to working people in greatest need.
  • Issue a workplace safety standard to protect front-line workers and other at-risk workers from infectious diseases.
  • Provide workplace controls, protocols, training and personal protective equipment.
  • Provide clear, protective federal guidance for different groups of workers with different needs.
  • Increase funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration for additional inspectors and health specialists, and for developing and implementing an infectious disease standard.
MITIGATE THE BROADER PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS

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Coronavirus dashboard for March 24

Coronavirus dashboard for March 24

Here is the update through yesterday (March 23)

In order to succeed in containing the pandemic, I believe that the US needs 2 weeks of China (nearly complete lockdown) followed by at least a month of South Korea (very aggressive and widespread testing). At minimum, that means at least 50% of the US population under lockdown and a ratio of 15:1 in tests to results showing infection. The recent exponential growth of about 35% per day must be stopped. Those three most important metrics are starred (***) below.

Number and rate of increase of Reported Infections (from Johns Hopkins via arcgis.com)
  • Number: up +11,226 to 46,450 (vs. +8,477 on March 23)
  • ***Rate of increase: day/day: 32% (vs. 34.6% baseline and vs. 32% on March 22)
I am using Jim Bianco’s excellent exponential projection of 34.5% growth from March 10 as my baseline. Hopefully “social distancing” strategies as well as State-mandated partial and total lockdowns will begin to put a dent in this by the end of this week; the deceleration to 32% d/d for the past 2 days may mark the beginning of this.
Number and rate of increase of testing (from COVID Tracking Project)

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Meanwhile, another DOJ move from Barr

Meanwhile while we are pre-occupied with corvid-19 comes this news from  Rolling Stone:

The Trump Department of Justice has asked Congress to craft legislation allowing chief judges to indefinitely hold people without trial and suspend other constitutionally-protected rights during coronavirus and other emergencies, according to a report by Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan.

The DOJ has requested Congress allow any chief judge of a district court to pause court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation,” according to draft language obtained by Politico. This would be applicable to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil processes and proceedings.” They justify this by saying currently judges can pause judicial proceedings in an emergency but that new legislation would allow them to apply it “in a consistent manner.”

Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told Politico the measure was “terrifying,” saying, “Not only would it be a violation of [habeas corpus], but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest.’ So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”

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The Oil Price War

The Oil Price War

One consequence of the emerging global Covid-19 recession has been that it has helped push world oil prices down from the $60.77 per barrel range near the beginning of 2020 to $23.12 for West Texas Crude and $29.00 for Brent Crude, levels not seen since the end of 2008. But part of why that decline has been so sharp and deep has been thet Saudi Arabia has increased production while Russia has kept up production, despite the Saudis demanding that they cut production.  So there is an oil price war going on.

Of course this will tend to cushion the recession for oil consumers.  But the US has become a small net oil exporter, and reports have it that a subsidiary reason for the Saudis and Russians getting into this price war has been to tank the US fracking industry in oil and natural gas, which by most reports cannot survive if prices remain as low as they are now.  So while US oil products buyers may be better off, the recession in oil producing parts of the US will be made worse.  It  should be kept in mind that a non-trivial part of the US economic growh in 2017 was a major increase in fracking activity, with half the increase in capital investment coming from that sector alone.  The damage to oil production in the US will probably exceed the benefits from lower prices at the pump in the US.

A curious corollary to this is that the leaders of both Russia and Saudi Arabia have made serious moves to enhance and expand their own power.  In Russia, Putin has moved to change the constitution so that instead of having to step down as president, he can run again twice more, keeping him still in as late as 2036, by which time he will be 84.  This still needs to pass a referendum, but few doubt that it will fail to do so, despite reported declines in Putin’s popularity.

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This is what exponential growth looks like: 2,500,000 infected in the next 15 days, 50,000 deaths

This is what exponential growth looks like: 2,500,000 infected in the next 15 days, 50,000 deaths

I had originally planned on limiting this post to the next 10 days. But then the Buffoon-in-Chief tweeted this:

So let’s look at the number of diagnosed infections and deaths in the US by the time Trump gets around to deciding what to do. Bottom line: about 2.5 million *diagnosed* infections, and about 50,000 deaths baked in the cake at a 2% mortality rate, if the current exponential rate of spreading continues.

Let me start by revisiting Jim Bianco’s March 10 graph one last time. At the time he put up the graph, there were 959 diagnosed coronavirus cases in the US:

That’s the information he had to work with. He deduced an exponential growth rate of 34.6% per day. Using that, he projected that over the next 10 days ending March 21, there would be 24,275 diagnosed cases:

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